I spent the last two weeks in Europe, where Austria narrowly failed to elect the first far-right head of state to hold power in that region since Francisco Franco died in 1975. Le Monde devoted a lot of space to the election, including an op-ed by a left-center Austrian who made a very telling point about his political milieu. He could no longer visit his Facebook page, he said, without driving up his blood pressure, because all he saw there was leftist accusations against the supporters of Norbert Hofer were Fascists. This, he argued, was both false and useless. Instead of simply writing off half their fellow citizens, he suggested, his friends should spent some time thinking about why a vast majority of their fellow citizens had turned completely away from the two established parties that had ruled Austria since the Second World War. The same warning could well be addressed to virtually every nation in the North Atlantic world--and certainly to the elite of the United States of America.
My facebook page is filled with daily complaints that Donald Trump simply cannot, must not, will not, be elected President, frequently tinged with a sense that no sane, educated or respectable person could possibly support him. I certainly agree that his election would be a serious catastrophe, but the fantasy that the moral superiority of certain better-off Americans will suffice to prevent it is very dangerous. As I write, an average of polls shows Trump just a couple of percentage points behind Hillary Clinton, with a large number of voters undecided. In fact, the whole story of this election reflects the enormous gap between "respectable" opinion and the beliefs of very large numbers of Americans who no longer care what their better-educated and better-off citizens think--and with good reason.
Trump's imminent nomination indicates that several things have gone dreadfully wrong with our political system. First, it seems unable to produce leaders of genuine quality who have made a name for themselves in public service. The problem does seem a little worse in the Republican party, where John Kasich was the only candidate with a serious record of achievement, but politicians nowadays have to spend so much time pandering and fund-raising that it is not surprising that both sides suffer from it. But as so many have pointed out, Trump's emergence as the man who is picking up the pieces also shows that celebrity has wider appeal than government service. Worst of all, however, the whole model upon which our system is based, of a rational discussion of issues leading to the development of solutions to our problems, has broken down. While some the millions of people who have voted for Trump may have real reasons to resent the state of the country and what has happened to their lives, they have very little excuse, it seems to me, for believing that he will really do anything to help.
In writing that last sentence, I have just stepped into a growing debate which was aired last week on radioopensource.com: who is to blame for the collapse of our political system--the people or the elites? The Anglo-American pundit Andrew Sullivan insisted, first of all, that the American economy was in remarkably good shape, and secondly, that the catastrophic war in Iraq (which he enthusiastically supported himself) was popular in the country at large, which did not hesitate to re-elect George W. Bush in 2004. He complained, in effect, that the American people had suddenly become too stupid to appreciate all the wise leadership they had been getting--or that the leaders were only doing what they wanted anyway--and were responsible for the threatened destruction of our democracy. Other guests suggested that the people had justifiably lost confidence in their leadership. Regular readers know that that is my opinion as well. Alas, our current establishment, I am afraid, is so generally pleased with itself that it will have great difficulty recognizing that it could indeed by to blame for our discontents, and this problem is going to continue regardless of the outcome of the election.
I do not, as you all know, regard Hillary Rodham Clinton as likely to do much to alter the course that the country is now on, except to involve us in some new war in the Middle East. Yet she is surely the lesser evil of the two candidates before us, and her speech yesterday was undoubtedly the highlight of her campaign to date. Rather than imply that she should be elected because she is a woman, or make highly questionable boasts about her fights for the underdog, or--as I had feared she would--defend establishment foreign policy, she found a kind of lowest common denominator for the campaign ahead. Donald Trump,. she said repeatedly and effectively, is both intellectually and temperamentally unfit to be President. Today's New York Times story about the speech did unfortunately include more evidence of the ineptitude of her staff, since her campaign actually leaked the names of the four staffers who had written it. Obviously most candidates' speeches (though not, it seems, some of Barack Obama's) have been written by staffers for a long time, but most of them have been smart enough not to admit it. My friends are right: Trump really threatens the well-being of the US at home and abroad, and it is very alarming that he is now estimated by markets to have a 40% chance of victory. Clinton's new line of attack will do well with educated Republicans. But Trump could still win, and the United States will still face huge problems even if he loses, because of the almost complete disconnect between our leading economic and intellectual classes on the one hand, and the mass of the American people on the other. The divide can't help but remind me of France in 1789 or Russia in 1917, and it is up to our leaders to start to close it.